The Sledgehammer is Gone: Paul Conrad, 1924-2010

Posted by on September 13th, 2010 at 12:01 AM


By the early 1990s, Conrad felt the culture of the Times shifting, and when the paper offered buyouts to the entire staff in January 1993, Con took his.

He didn’t exactly retire: he gave up his office at the paper, but he continued to draw four cartoons a week for syndication. And he kept that up until quite recently when he became too ill to work.

Conrad pursued other avocations — painting and sculpting in bronze (political figures, mostly —including Nixon making his famous “V” with his arms raised) and participating in community acitivites.

The Des Moines Register‘s “Ding” may have been the idol of Conrad’s youth, but he wrote in his autobiography that Herblock had the greatest influence on him. And the influence is apparent in Con’s earliest cartooning at the Post.

In those days, Con did spot illustrations for the paper’s letter column and a couple gag cartoons that also sometimes dressed up the editorial page. Evidently, Hoyt thought a staff cartoonist with only a single editorial cartoon to do every day didn’t have enough to keep him sufficiently busy.


(Click image to see larger version.)


(Click image to see larger version.)


In the latter part of his career, Conrad often abandoned the editorial cartoonist’s usual weapon, caricature, in favor of depicting some inanimate object and giving it potent symbolic value. Sometimes I think he went a bit overboard in this maneuver — he seemed to do it more and more as his ability to caricature deteriorated over the years — but his cartoons have the uncompromising force of a sledgehammer, as does Conrad’s prose narrative. In neither does he pull any punches. His straight talk, in words and in pictures, is well represented in his autobiography.

“He believed the perfect cartoon had little or no text,” said Rainey. “To represent President Nixon’s self-inflicted wound from his Oval Office taping system: an unraveled audiotape, formed into a hangman’s noose. Depicting hawkish U.S. foreign policy: a beaming Reagan, sitting waist-deep in a bathtub filled with toy warships.”

Rainey continued: “An exceptional single-mindedness made many of Conrad’s cartoons jump off the page: Nixon, tied down like the giant, Gulliver, by reel after reel of his secret Oval Office audiotapes. Nancy Reagan’s pricey new White House china captures the reflection of a stooped homeless woman, picking through the trash. President Carter ‘lusts after’ a voluptuous nude Statue of Liberty. A Northern Californian, opposed to the massive Peripheral Canal water project, urinates on a map of Southern California.”

Nixon and Reagan, two California politicians who rose to occupy the White House, were Conrad’s favorite foils.




In the New York Times obituary, Robert D. McFadden describes some of Con’s assaults on the nefarious California alumni: In 1968, Conrad drew California’s Governor Reagan on his knees retrieving papers marked “law and order,” “patriotism,” and “individual liberty,” from under the feet of former Governor George Wallace of Alabama, a presidential candidate that year. “Excuse me, Mr. Wallace,” he says, “you’re stepping on my lines.” As president, Mr. Reagan became Napoleon, “The War Powers Actor.”

Conrad also took aim at Democrats, McFadden points out. President Lyndon B. Johnson and Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey were cowboys riding a Dr. Strangelove bomb down to Vietnam in 1968. Years later, when Robert S. McNamara expressed regrets over the war, Conrad drew the former defense secretary at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington (beside the names of 58,000 dead) saying, “Sorry about that.”

Missing from the Conrad reprint books, though, is what I think may have been one of his earliest symbolic efforts — the head, in profile, of an African who is screaming in agony, the outline of the picture evoking the map of Africa. Among the cartoons in the gallery below, I’ve made a stab myself in the direction of showing how he did it.

“The Watergate scandal created a perfect convergence,” Rainey wrote, “— Richard Nixon’s scheming and skullduggery pitted against Conrad’s righteous indignation and furious craft.” On the day after the illegal break-in, he drew Nixon disguised as a phone-company worker boring a hole in the wall at the Democratic National Committee headquarters; with that, he nailed the president to the crime at the very onset of the scandal, as cartoonist Steve Greenberg acutely notes.



Conrad relentlessly pursued the wounded president. He rendered Nixon with brow furrowed, eyes ringed with dark shadows, head slumped into rounded shoulders — helping to cement the image of a desperate, paranoid chief executive. ‘His own worst enemy,’ said one cartoon of the glowering president, hunkered over his ‘enemies list,’ the infamous roster of people who the former president considered political threats.”

Rainey concluded: “Others saw Nixon’s 1994 death as occasion for absolution. Not Conrad. He drew the 37th president’s grave with the words: ‘Here lies Richard Nixon.'” It made you think twice about the alternative meanings of the word “lies.”

Of all of his laurels and other achievements in a longer career than most, Conrad was proudest of the most perverse of them. When he found out that he had made it onto Nixon’s “enemies list,” he was delighted. He saw it as a signal distinction, a triumphant honor. Nothing, it seems, could have pleased him more, and he often bragged about it.

And he relished the accolade even more in 1977. That year, Nixon’s alma mater, Whittier College in California, compounded Conrad’s delight: It named the cartoonist one of its Nixon Scholars for the school year.


Here is a sampling of what a few of Conrad’s admirers said about him, through the years and at the time of his death:

The author and essayist Pete Hamill called Conrad “a voice. And the voice is his alone: alternately savage, compassionate, brutal and ironic.”

Politico‘s editoonist Matt Wuerker said: “Conrad was a giant, with giant talents… and a giant ego, and combined, these things let him take cartooning to truly great heights. He set such a fine example of what sharp, serious, passionate cartooning can attain. The power and impact of his cartoons has been matched by only a few in the field. Political cartooning lost a real lion today.”

“Otis [Chandler] and I would sometimes kind of talk, kid around, about how much trouble Conrad was,” said former Times editor William Thomas, who headed the paper’s editorial operations from 1971 to 1989. “We all caught hell for things, but you couldn’t help but appreciate the artistry that he had, the intellect behind it and the punch that it packed.”

“The cartoonist, loud and often profane in person, viewed himself as a champion of the common man and relished combat with those he saw as protectors of the rich and privileged,” wrote James Rainey in the Times obit.

“Conrad is… more than a legend in cartooning and an institution in American journalism,” said the late Doug Marlette, one of the many cartoonists inspired by that work. “He is a force of nature… You measure Conrad on the Richter scale.”

Paul Conrad will be revered and remembered with other furious giants of the craft — Thomas Nast, Joseph Keppler, Homer Davenport, Daniel Fitzpatrick, Edmund Duffy, Herblock, and Bill Mauldin — who made us think with their righteous anger and outrageous pictures.

And here is a short-aisled gallery of Conrad’s work.













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One Response to “The Sledgehammer is Gone: Paul Conrad, 1924-2010”

  1. patford says:

    The fact that Jeff MacNelly won one Pulitzer, let alone three, kind of deflates the honor.
    Maybe those were the years they were awarding the prize for drawing lopsided tractors?
    The passing of a giant. I loved Conrad so much that for 20 years my mom (thanks mom) cut and mailed every Conrad cartoon to me.
    If only there is a place called heaven where Conrad can clasp hands with Art Young.